Four out of ten prisons visited by the Adult Learning Inspectorate were judged "unsatisfactory or weak" for equality of opportunity. This figure has not improved since inspectors visited at the time of legislation on race relations and special educational needs in 2000 and 2001.
The failure is in marked contrast to FE colleges, which have managed considerable improvement since 2001, when inspectors judged 40 per cent of all colleges and other providers unsatisfactory or weak in their efforts to improve equality of opportunity.
One in ten is now judged "outstanding" in this area and almost six in ten are described as "good". Fewer than three in 10 were "satisfactory", while only 4 per cent were "unsatisfactory".
However, there is no room for complacency, say the inspectors. There are still too many who are not doing well enough. "Weaker colleges start with a disadvantage of their own making - they rarely collect, monitor and use local equality data to find out exactly what is happening in their area," says a report from the inspectorate this week.
"The result is too often a selection of courses with narrow appeal and, in particular, few courses for people who want to study at lower levels." In consequence, colleges did less than they should to challenge and break down stereotyped approaches to employment.
This was reflected in people's career choices. For example, women make up just 1 per cent of construction apprentices, and men just 3 per cent of people working in childcare, the report shows. Only 6 per cent of apprentices are from ethnic-minority groups.
The report highlights good practice such as activities based in communities, improved college access for the disabled and catering for religious differences to promote equality of opportunity.
It cites Newcastle as "a fine example". Working with Interactive Development Limited, a firm that caters for adults with disabilities, the college holds courses at venues where students "feel comfortable".
City College Manchester allows Muslim staff and students to worship at the mosque during college hours. Sunderland College ensures learners can purchase food at dusk during Ramadan. But staff and students at other colleges were not even aware they had a prayer room.
Since 2000, colleges have had a legal duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality. However, inspectors say some colleges have yet to produce policies to do this and staff training in race relations has also been weak.
John Landeryou, the inspectorate's assistant director, said colleges had good intentions but often failed to follow them through. "Good intentions need to be examined critically in the light of what has actually been achieved. The performance of different groups of learners needs to be measured, and action taken to address any significant variations."